Let’s just say it: Americans have a limited knowledge of China’s government. Most of us know that a whole lot of our stuff comes from there and that if you say “China” three times into a mirror, Donald Trump will appear to yell about how they’re stealing our jobs, but that’s about it. As John Oliver points out in this week’s Last Week Tonight, for a long time, that lack of understanding was intentional, but now, under the subversive influence of Chinese president Xi Jinping, China is expanding its influence on a global scale.
Since assuming the presidency in 2013, Xi has quickly established himself as China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong. His popularity stems largely from China’s impressive economic growth (though that growth spurt started long before he took office). As Oliver notes, over the last 30 years, the expansion of China’s economy has helped lift 800 million people out of poverty, and this new middle class backs Xi. In addition, Chinese lawmakers voted on March 11 to eliminate presidential term limits in China’s constitution. The measure passed 2,958 to two, essentially granting Xi the opportunity to rule indefinitely and eliminating what Oliver calls any “post-Mao guardrails.”
Xi has used his massive influence to develop his signature project, the Belt and Road Initiative. The $1 trillion (not billion, a trillion, the one with 12 zeros) project aims to reshape infrastructure and global trade routes to place China squarely in the center of that new network. China is no longer hiding its strength, as was the policy of previous presidents. Instead, the project has been openly advertised via a video of children singing cheerily about infrastructure expansion … in English.
Xi, nicknamed the cuddly “Uncle Xi,” depicts himself as a man of the people. He represents himself as China’s equivalent of folksy; swap the “I could grab a beer with him” sentiments your one uncle harbored for George W. Bush with a pork bun. Oliver jokes that though Americans expect leaders to be pictured wolfing down junk food (as photographs of every president from Eisenhower through Trump eating ice cream are shown in the sidebar), this is unusual, but effective, behavior from a Chinese president.
However, Oliver points out that, behind the scenes, Xi’s policies indicate a much more dangerous leader. Xi initiated a huge crackdown on corrupt politicians, which had the double benefit of pleasing China’s populace and eliminating many of his political enemies. Many of those purged from the government were handed over to “a secret, extralegal process” through which they are tortured for confessions. Xi has also come down hard on dissent, banning the phrases “personality cult” and “my emperor” online, as well as images of Winnie the Pooh, whom critics have mockingly joked that Xi resembles.
Additionally, Xi has begun to micromanage Chinese daily life by maintaining a list of untrustworthy people and categorizing citizens by their religion, resulting in 800,000 Muslims being incarcerated in religious reeducation camps. Over the next few years, Chinese citizens will be assigned a social credit score that increases through community service and purchasing Chinese goods, but decreases due to tax evasion or “smoking in non-smoking areas.” If their social credit score sinks too low, citizens are liable to lose their rights to purchase travel tickets, real estate, cars or even high-speed internet.
Needless to say, these are all gross abuses of human rights, but little is being done to curb Xi’s actions. “China has significant economic leverage and it has been using that to silence criticism, even when criticism is very much warranted,” Oliver warns. He ends the monologue with a satirical propaganda video styled after Xi’s “Belt and Road” video, in which children sing about China’s misleading self-representation.
Watch the full segment from Last Week Tonight below, and check out Xi’s “Belt and Road” propaganda for yourself further down.